Visit Saranac Brewery and Try the First Beer Served after Prohibition
November 22, 2019
Last updated on November 25, 2019.
Saranac Brewery is one of the highlights along the Heart of New York Beverage Trail. It’s not only one of the biggest breweries in New York State, but also the most historic. A history over a century long in a beautifully adorned building is something to experience in person. Keep reading to find out why you should visit Saranac Brewery – and try the very first beer served after the repeal of Prohibition.
On a personal note, I have to give a HUGE shoutout to one of my favorite local artists. Under the name “Retro Sorrento”, Maria is the amazing talent behind the artwork on Saranac’s bottle labels and cases. Go check her out on Instagram!
Saranac Brewery was established in the late 1800s – making it one of the oldest breweries in the United States. Over its long history, it has been known by many different names. West End Brewing, FX Matt Brewing Company, Saranac Brewery, Utica…
Despite popular belief, Saranac Brewery has nothing to do with Saranac Lake. The brewery was actually founded in Utica, New York – about 40 minutes east of Syracuse. The name comes from a Native American word meaning “cluster of stars.”
Because of its large size and successful history of brewing, Saranac now supports other New York breweries. Flying Bison (from Buffalo) and Brooklyn Brewery are just two of the others that work with Saranac and often use Saranac facilities to brew. The brewery also makes McKenzie’s Hard Cider.
Francis Xavier Matt came to the United States from Germany in 1878 and started working at Bierbauer’s Brewery. Ten years later, FX was brewmaster and reestablished the brewery as West End Brewing Company. Throughout Saranac’s history and name changes, the company has remained a family-owned entity. In 1921, FX the first passed the brewery down to his son and grandson, Walter and FX Matt II. It was FX Matt II who renamed West End Brewing as FX Matt Brewing Company in honor of his grandfather. He also introduced the Saranac branding in the mid 1980s. Today the brewery is commonly referred to as Saranac Brewery and is owned and operated by members of the third and fourth ‘brewing’ generations of the Matt family.
Who are Schultz & Dooley?
Growing up I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. In the family room there were shelves and shelves of beer steins. I never thought much about it other than my aunt liked to drink beer and collect these particular steins. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized their connection to Saranac Brewery.
The original steins – Schultz and Dooley – were actually characters in a marketing campaign created by FX Matt Brewing Company in the late 1950s/early 1960s. These talking beer steins became quite famous, and a whole series of steins have been created since. You can see several of them on display – and some for sale – at the brewery.
Saranac During Prohibition
Like every other brewery and distillery in the US, Saranac was hit by Prohibition. But, they persevered and shifted focus to crafting soda instead of beer. To this day, Saranac remains my favorite soda company – their root beer is the best! You also can’t go wrong with the ginger, black cherry, or Shirley Temples (virgin, of course!).
They also got creative and developed a “near beer”. While technically legal to sell because it contained no alcohol, it gave customers directions on the label for how they could craft their own beer at home.
A Real Speakeasy
One of the most intriguing facts about Saranac is that they ran a real speakeasy during Prohibition. Even better? You can visit it on the brewery tour. That’s right! The tour will lead you through the oak doors that blocked off the speakeasy room. You can even peek through the pass-through window to see what is was like to deliver urgent messages to shut down. The room that served as the speakeasy is decorated in 1920s style still today. But you no longer need to use the passwords “shoelace” or “Joe sent me” to enter.
The First Beer after Prohibition
Have you ever heard of a beer brewed in 60 minutes? Well, that’s one thing that Saranac became famous for! Now, as the wife of someone who loves to homebrew his own beer, I know that brewing beer is a looooong process. There is no way that a beer can be made in 60 minutes. But, just 60 minutes after Prohibition was repealed, Saranac had beer ready to serve.
So how did that happen? Well, we know that they couldn’t have actually made a fresh batch of beer in under an hour. But, they were not-so-cautiously optimistic getting ready for the prohibition ban to be lifted. They regularly sent people down to Washington DC to keep an eye on the situation. And because of that, on April 7th, 1933, West End Brewing Company made history just minutes after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the law to repeal Prohibition. The ink was barely dry before they became the first brewery to get a permit to sell beer again. A phone call was made from DC to upstate New York and the taps started flowing. The first beer served? Utica Club.
Believe it or not, it was several years before I got the chance to so the Saranac Brewery Tour – despite constant raving from family and friends! I had been to the property before during their famous summer music series. But with my husband working Saturdays and a general busy schedule, it didn’t happen until this past summer. While brewery tours have been running since 1965, timing is limited – they are only offered on Fridays and Saturdays at 1, 2, 3, and 4pm.
Why is the brewery tour so famous? First of all, it’s only $5. That’s a steal. Secondly, you get to tour the incredibly large and historic brewery – including the speakeasy room, old-fashioned bar, brewing floor, canning area, aging tanks, storage, and more. The 500 barrel copper kettles are a sight to see! But the best part of the tour? Your ticket includes a free drink at the end – in the famous and beautiful 1888 Tavern. You can’t go wrong with that! Plus, they also serve experimental brews on tap – so you might get the chance to try something they are crafting for future release. Or just something they tried brewing for fun.
You’ll learn most of what I’ve written about during your own tour, but you’ll get to experience it all first hand – and drink some beer! So go ahead and plan your trip to visit Saranac Brewery and try the first beer served after Prohibition for yourself. Cheers!